Sex Test Engenders a Skewed Reality

The Mother’s Day press release was cloying. The innovation it heralds is unnecessary at best and, at worst, a sexist menace.

The product is IntelliGender, a $95 urine test that claims to identify the sex of a foetus from as early as eight weeks. It went on sale last Sunday at some Australian chemists.

IntelliGender’s tag line is, “Pink or blue, we’ll tell you!” It’s here the problems start. Already, experts have raised doubts about the test’s capacity to reliably discern foetal sex. No reports on the science behind it have appeared in the academic literature and even the company admits that the 90 per cent accuracy achieved in clinical tests falls to 82 per cent in real-world conditions.

How much this matters has everything to do with the real-world uses to which the test is put. If few buy it, and those that do see it as no more than a bit of fun designed to get those nursery colour coordinates right, then who cares? But the worry is that in Australia, where abortion is a safe if not always lawful procedure, test results might not be accurate, yet become the basis of a decision with legal, medical and ethical ramifications. This is different to home pregnancy tests, the results of which are always validated prior to an abortion being undertaken or antenatal care commenced.

But the core ethical concerns raised by DIY sex-identification kits are about more than informed decision-making. They take in the motives of users and the consequences for all of us if skewed gender preferences are given free reign.

Currently, the only way Australians can select their child’s gender is to create embryos using IVF, then screen for sex prior to implantation. In most Australian states, this technology can only be offered to couples seeking to avoid the birth of a child with an inherited gender-linked disease such as haemophilia. Where the law is silent, medical research and ethics guidelines – which tend to frown on use of the technology for non-medical reasons – reign. In the past, there was a NSW clinic that offered embryo screening for medical reasons and to those seeking to balance their family by having a child of a sex different to their existing children but this service has now been withdrawn.

The lack of outcry about such restrictions seems best explained by low levels of desire to select gender for reasons other than avoiding disease or family balancing.

The best predictor of couples who will try for a third child are those with two children of the same sex, and surveys of Anglo and European couples – Australian data is scarce – show low levels of interest in using gender-selection technology. This is as it should be. Parents should not have a general preference for one sex over the other validated, nor be allowed to turn such preferences into a skewed gender reality (most likely, a world in which more boys are born than girls). Gender selection using IVF to avoid disease or balance genders in a family doesn’t do this. Also, by compelling couples to turn up at clinics to access the technology, it makes possible the sort of monitoring that would reveal straight away if couples were choosing more of one sex than the other.

Home-based testing kits for foetal sex undercut informed decision-making, trivialise gender-based childbearing decisions and render their consequences – should the use of the test followed by abortion become widespread – difficult to monitor.

It’s hard to see reasons to have them on pharmacy shelves.

Publication history

Sex Test Engenders a Skewed Reality  Sunday Sun-Herald